Part art form, part science, and part magic, humans have been transforming simple ingredients into spirits through distillation since time immemorial. The process of distillation — which separates components from a liquid mixture using a still — allows us to produce a wide variety of spirits. The simple ingredient at the heart of this process? Grains!
While distillation itself involves several crucial steps, the choice of grain plays a significant role in determining the flavor profile and character of the final product. Grains provide the sugars required for fermentation — the chemical reaction that transforms sugar into alcohol courtesy of a microscopic helper, yeast. Different grains significantly impact the flavor, aroma, mouthfeel, and overall profile of the resulting spirit, making it perhaps the most important decision in the distillation process.
What grains are traditionally used in distillation and what grains are being used to create new and exciting varieties of spirits? Read on to find out!
Trusty Staples: Barley, Corn, Rye, and Wheat
Traditionally, four grains have been staples in distillation for as long as the process has existed: barley, corn, rye, and wheat.
Barley is one of the oldest grains utilized in distillation and is typically used as the base for Scotch whiskey. It possesses unique enzymes that play a vital role in converting starches into fermentable sugars during the mashing process. Barley imparts a rich and somewhat nutty flavor to the final product, adding the signature depth and complexity to scotch whiskey that is appreciated by aficionados and amateurs alike.
Corn, meanwhile, is the primary ingredient used in Bourbon and American whiskies as it is available in abundance in North America. Corn based mash brings a natural sweetness to the final product, enticing the palate with its pleasant sugary notes. Beyond its sweeter flavor profile, corn also lends a smooth mouthfeel to the spirit, creating a velvety texture that enhances the overall drinking experience.
Rye, with its bold and distinctive character, is an integral component in the production of rye whiskey. Renowned for its spiciness and robust flavors, rye adds a layer of complexity and depth that sets it apart from other grains. The peppery notes and unique flavor profile it imparts contribute to the creation of a spirit with singular depth of flavor. Rye whiskey enthusiasts value its distinct taste and actively seek out the singular flavor profile that only this grain can offer.
Finally, wheat, with its delicate and mellow flavor, plays a crucial role in crafting a smoother and softer spirit. This grain is a key ingredient in the production of spirits such as vodka and gin, where a clean and crisp taste is highly valued. Wheat's contribution to vodka production brings a subtle sweetness and a refined character that adds elegance and sophistication to the final product. The smoothness and gentle flavors attributed to wheat make it a preferred choice for those seeking a spirit that is both gentle on the palate and rich in nuance.
New Frontiers: Quinoa, Millet, Sorghum, Rice, and Oats
As the world of distillation continues to evolve, new and unconventional grains have begun to make their mark.
Quinoa, the Andean superfood, has begun to be experimented with by a handful of adventurous distillers. This tiny yet nutrition-packed grain offers a complex, nutty flavor profile when used in vodka and whiskey, pushing the boundaries of conventional spirit flavors.
Millet, a globally significant staple grain, has also made a foray into the world of spirits. While fairly common as a base for spirits in African and Asia, it has primarily been used in whiskey production in Western countries by craft distillers. Millet brings a sweet and nutty taste that creates a unique sipping experience.
Sorghum, an African native grain, has found a welcoming place in the distilling industry, particularly in gluten-free spirits. When used in distillation, it lends an earthy sweetness that makes for a distinctive spirit profile.
Rice, known worldwide as the key ingredient in Japanese sake, has expanded its repertoire to include whiskey and vodka. It provides a clean and delicate flavor profile that further broadens the spectrum of flavors available in spirits.
Oats were once fairly common in whiskey production, especially in the British Isles. In the last several years oats have begun to make a comeback in distilled spirits, especially in some craft whiskies. The addition of oats introduces an almost creamy texture and warmth of flavor that brings a remarkable dimension to spirits.
The Science of Selection
When distillers choose a grain, they aren't merely picking a random ingredient. They're shaping the spirit's very essence and soul. The unique chemistry of each grain influences the mash's sugar composition, which is crucial for yeast during fermentation.
For example, barley contains abundant enzymes that readily break down starches, making it an excellent choice for whiskey production. On the other hand, grains like corn or wheat may require the addition of external enzymes to facilitate starch conversion.
Fermentable sugars in grains serve as a food source for yeast, which converts those sugars into alcohol. As yeast metabolizes the sugars, it produces a range of compounds, which contribute to the aroma and flavor profiles of the spirit. Corn boasts a high sugar content which produces a sweeter spirit whereas barley contains less sugar, making it an appropriate choice for a less sweet finished product.
Other factors that contribute to a spirit’s final flavor profile include length of fermentation and fermentation. Each grain will interact differently with each of these processes, leading to almost infinite possibilities for a distiller when deciding what grains to use in what proportion.
Future Trends: What Unique Grains Might We See Next?
Grains are the backbone of the distillation process, influencing the taste, complexity, and character of spirits. As distillers continue to push the boundaries of creativity, we can expect to see even more unique grains finding their way into the distillation process. With an increasing interest in sustainability, there may even be a rise in the use of lesser-known ancient grains or locally sourced grains, adding new chapters to the long story of distillation.
We eagerly await what (and who) the future will bring to our glasses. Cheers to the future of spirits and the grains that make them possible!